Mikio Aoki, a key member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s most powerful faction and the chief Cabinet secretary to two prime ministers, said his faction will support Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori until the Upper House election next summer.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Aoki — also secretary general of the LDP’s Upper House members — said the faction, founded by his mentor, the late Noboru Takeshita, and currently led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, will “give its full support to the Mori administration.”

There is lingering concern within the LDP that it will suffer another setback in the election unless it replaces Mori, whose popular support remains low in media polls.

The 98-member faction, led by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi until his death in May, exerts a strong influence in the selection of the LDP president. Aoki, 66, formerly a close aide to the longtime kingmaker Takeshita, has a high degree of control in the group’s decision-making.

Speaking at his private office near the Diet, occupying part of the space once reserved for Takeshita and Obuchi, Aoki said: “We cannot wage a winning battle for the election if we are divided within the party. . . . We must unite and do our utmost to support Mr. Mori.”

But since the LDP and its coalition allies suffered a serious setback in the June 25 Lower House election, talk about a successor to Mori no longer seems to be taboo within the LDP and among its partners. In fact, leaders of New Komeito recently indicated that the party may accept former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato as a possible successor.

Kato is seen as easing his opposition to the LDP’s alliance with New Komeito, which is backed by Soka Gakkai — the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization.

Aoki avoided directly stating his opinion of Kato, who was runnerup to Obuchi in the September 1999 LDP presidential race.

“I get on well with Kato and know him well, but currently, I am not thinking about matters like who will succeed Mr. Mori,” Aoki said.

Asked if the Hashimoto faction will select its own candidate for the party’s next head, Aoki said: “I am not thinking about it at this moment, but our faction is such a big group with about 100 members and will have to field a candidate in time.”

His vague comments reflect a problem currently haunting the faction — the apparent lack of a prominent figure who can lead the group and make a bid for the party leadership.

Although Hashimoto became the faction’s chairman by default, it is not clear whether the former prime minister, who resigned after the LDP’s loss in the 1998 Upper House race, has enough clout to try again for the party presidency. Aoki said the faction will be jointly led by several leaders with Hashimoto at the center — for a while.

As chief Cabinet secretary and briefly acting prime minister, Aoki oversaw the transition of power from Obuchi to Mori in April. He came under public criticism for failing to promptly disclose information about Obuchi’s collapse from a stroke on April 2, having withheld facts about the prime minister’s health for more than a day after he was hospitalized.

Five months later, Aoki refuses to talk about the details of what happened but insists he is still confident the government handled the crisis properly.

“We could not make an announcement about such a grave matter before Mr. Obuchi’s condition was clarified,” Aoki said, referring to his late-night news conference on the day the late prime minister collapsed. In that news conference, Aoki merely said that Obuchi was hospitalized due to fatigue, although he was already in a coma by that time.

He also denied media reports that a handful of senior LDP leaders, including himself, handpicked Mori as Obuchi’s successor behind closed doors immediately before his illness was made public. “I could not afford to think about things like Mr. Obuchi’s successor at that moment,” he insisted.

Aoki said he finds his current task of preparing for next year’s Upper House election much easier than the work he did as chief Cabinet secretary under Obuchi and then Mori. But he admits that the LDP faces an uphill battle in the runup to the election, in which half of the 252 seats in the upper chamber will be contested.

“The outlook is grim, but we can’t afford to lose,” he said.

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